In New York State, you can be deposed for a maximum of seven hours for a civil lawsuit. That's a long time to be under intense scrutiny with smart opposing lawyers probing for inconsistencies in your story. After five or six hours, they'll often circle back to questions they asked you in the first hour, trying to catch you out. Like any interrogation, it's designed to strip away the bluster and obfuscation to get at the unvarnished truth.
For many world leaders, the COVID-19 crisis is turning into that same type of extended forensic examination of their leadership abilities. Some, like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Angela Merkel of Germany, have burnished their reputations for level-headed competence. Sadly, that's not the case for President Trump, who's bloviation and bare-faced lies keep running into the harsh realities of the daily death statistics.
With 20 million Americans losing their jobs and thousands dying every day, Trump has been dragged into a competence competition where the contrast with both Joe Biden and state governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York is deeply unflattering. Trump's seven-month deposition will last until November's Presidential election and, despite his squirming and evasion, he has nowhere to hide. As the US deaths grind inexorably towards 100,000, those who still believed that the emperor was wearing some clothes have watched him be systematically disrobed by the facts. His unfounded March optimism that the virus would magically disappear and that the churches would be full by Easter, his claims that everyone can get a test who wants it, and his wild speculation about gargling disinfectant, have been juxtaposed on a daily basis with pictures of body bags being loaded into refrigerated trucks because the morgues are full.
But Trump's advisers aren't blind to the political fallout from this crisis. They recognise that the pandemic is kryptonite to his political hucksterism and that it's wrecked his electoral strategy of taking credit for a booming economy. So instead of playing the competence game, they're pivoting to their familiar playbook of polarisation and division. If we can't manage the public health crisis, let's reframe it as part of the multi-decade long American culture wars that pit the coastal liberal elites against 'real Americans'. Through that lens, the speed of reopening morphs from a question of epidemiology to one of individual rights. That's why Trump has encouraged state governors to negotiate with small but gun-toting 'Liberate America' mobs in many state capitals, some carrying Confederate flags and swastikas.
In the eyes of Fox News
– increasingly Trump's Pravda – this is another tea party moment in which a spontaneous grass roots revolt challenges liberal paternalism and help Americans 'take back their country'. In this narrative, social distancing becomes a harbinger of broader socialism, inconvenience equates to oppression, and any bleeding-heart liberal who calls for collective responsibility is clanking the chains of tyranny.
National statistics that show the US infection rate falling are deeply misleading. If you exclude NY, the week of 25 April to 1 May showed a 17% increase in new cases before reopening began in many states. Despite these numbers, many American states are now signing up for Trump's 'the cure can't be worse than the disease' philosophy by letting stay at home orders expire. Yet almost none of these states have met the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) criteria for reopening, including declining infection rates and adequate testing and trace protocols; criteria endorsed by the administration just a few weeks ago in a now discarded staged reopening plan.
To emphasise the new 'damn the torpedoes' approach to public health, a detailed 17-page CDC guide for how to reopen safely was buried by the White House last week, and its authors were told it would 'never see the light of day'.
This pivot from science to the politics of division was summed up best by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey's refusal to implement any sort of stay at home order on the basis that 'we're not New York or California'. The stated reason may have been economic, but the clear subtext was a value judgement about lifestyles and morals, as if COVID-19 was some divine punishment being visited primarily on Democratic states and that God-fearing Alabamians had nothing to worry about. So rather than New Hampshire's motto of 'live free or die', the prevailing political wisdom in many Republican states now appears to have shifted to 'live free and die, but at least you'll be working when you get infected'.
So, America is about to conduct a grand national experiment to determine the COVID-19 death rate we're willing to tolerate to get things back to some semblance of normality. One scenario has deaths spiking in the South and Midwest in early June, resulting in a penitent return to lockdowns. But the far more likely scenario is that many parts of America will choose to prioritise personal liberties like getting a haircut over the risk of killing their grandparents, because recent history shows that, when faced with big societal challenges like climate change, America consistently chooses to put individual freedoms ahead of the collective good.
In a matter of just a few days, not wearing a face mask became a sign of right-wing political virility and a way of 'owning the libs', just as buying a V-12 muscle car gives the middle finger to environmentalists. In an almost self-parody of mixed messaging, last week Trump toured a mask factory in Arizona to show that the PPE supply chain was working, but then refused to wear a mask himself while a Guns N' Roses cover of Live and Let Die
blared over the factory's PA system.
While the tactic of questioning the science of COVID-19 is straight from the climate change denier handbook, the best way to gauge America's tolerance for liberty over life may be to look at the politics of gun violence. The slaughter of school kids in Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida were images even more visceral and emotionally affecting than today's overcrowded ICUs, yet America's political class has consistently decided that the cure of banning assault weapons is worse than the disease of mass school shootings. Just as most Americans favour keeping lockdown restrictions in place to slow the spread of the virus, most Americans also favour tighter gun laws, yet gun-related deaths remain an order of magnitude higher than in other developed countries.
Despite episodic outrage, we've come to accept that the gun lobby is powerful enough to block change and hence we focus on risk mitigation like active shooter drills in schools. As a society, we've chosen to live with the consequences of pervasive firearms, just as many states now appear ready to normalise the consequences of rampant COVID-19 infections.
But what does America's tolerance for gun violence tell us about the death rate that America might be willing to tolerate to get back to normal? Germany is a good contrast, given its combination of low levels of both gun violence and COVID-19-related deaths. Last year, America had 12 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people versus just one in Germany. The variation in COVID-19-related deaths is a lot closer, with the US being at 23 per 100,000 versus just nine in Germany. So, in a world where the US was willing to tolerate the same delta with Germany in COVID-19-related deaths as it does for gun violence, the death rate from the virus in the US would jump to 108 per 100,000, nearly double the rate in Spain.
The current consensus 2020 projection for COVID-19 deaths in the US is somewhere in the 150,000 range, with a margin of error that puts the high side north of 200,000. But if we become inured and desensitised to those deaths the same way we have with gun-violence, we could be looking at over 350,000 deaths this year, or 0.1% of the US population. To put that number in perspective, around 650,000 Americans die each year from heart disease and slightly less from cancer. So somewhere in the White House, Republican strategists are currently asking themselves whether 350,000 dead Americans is a price worth paying to get the country back to work, especially if you can claim that a vaccine is on the horizon and hence those deaths can be spun as a one-time sacrifice akin to the causalities of war.
These numbers will likely become the key political battleground for the rest of 2019 with the Presidential election becoming a referendum on Trump's handling of the pandemic. On one side, you'll have leaders like Governor Cuomo pushing back on claims that lockdowns are doing more harm than good by asserting 'economic hardship — yes, very bad — not death. Emotional stress, from being locked in a house — very bad, not death. How can the cure be worse than the illness if the illness is potential death?' On the other side, you already have right-wing talk show hosts boldly claiming that they would personally sacrifice their lives to get the economy moving again.
As the US death rate climbs, Trump won't be able to fall back on his usual 'who knew?' defence. An internal Federal Emergency Management Agency document projects that as states reopen, the daily death toll will reach 3,000 by 1 June – a 70% increase from the 1 May number, and a 9/11's worth of suffering every day. Trump has recognised that he can't run on competence in November, so it looks like the cold callous calculus of trading an incremental 150,000 American lives for a quick rebound in the economy will be his preferred political strategy. Maybe that's why it's been reported that last week the US federal government ordered another 100,000 body bags.